I think if there were one thing I could change about myself, it would be the ability to listen with equanimity. I read a lot, online and off, and all too often I come across a fallacy, or a self-contradiction, or a point of ignorance, and I just seeth. I instantly want to write an angry response, coldly and forcefully pointing out how YOU ARE WRONG AND I CAN PROVE IT. I compose angry screeds in my head. I have lengthy mental dialogs with imaginary interlocutors, dismissing their arguments point-by-point. Sometimes these mental exercises leave me even more annoyed than when I started.
I am happy to say that when I actually take keyboard in hand to lay the intellectual smack down on someone, at least 90% of the time I lose interest after a paragraph or two and trash the unsent response. Usually I feel a little sheepish and silly for awhile after. And if I actually send it, I’m terrified to check my mail (LJ, etc…) for fear that there’s an angry rebuttal waiting for me.
I’ve never liked confrontation. Part of that is just my natural (or perhaps learned) inclination; but part of it is reasoned. See, I think most confrontation is unproductive or counterproductive. In my experience most non-technical arguments create more heat than light. I’ve always hated the prickly combative style of public discourse, and I hate it when I see myself contributing to it.
Ben Franklin advised that when putting your opinion forth, you should always put it modestly, beginning with phrases like “it seems to me…” or “may I suggest…” – and that by doing so, you would have far greater success than if you stated it as indubitable fact. And in the debates I have observed, the people who have always impressed me most are the ones who remain calm and composed, who respond to barbs with grace rather than by returning fire, who don’t assert their position forcefully but instead gently suggest. When someone like this enters a typical internet snark-fest, it’s like royalty stepping through a mud-spattered rabble. They inspire instant respect.
It is better to convert than to defeat, and in order to do either reliably it is necessary to understand and have sympathy for your opponent. Even better, you shouldn’t even regard them as an opponent. And yet, time and again, I read something and my immediate reaction is NO! WRONG! WRONG! WRONG!
I want to listen and hear with perfect equanimity and sympathy. I want to understand what concerns others, rather than where they err. I want to identify and comprehend rather than busying myself looking for chinks in their armor. I want to be the steadfast yet yielding tree, and not the whirlwind.